Sterling silver
Sterling silver is an alloy
An alloy is a mixture or metallic solid solution composed of two or more elements. Complete solid solution alloys give single solid phase microstructure, while partial solutions give two or more phases that may or may not be homogeneous in distribution, depending on thermal history...

 of silver
Silver is a metallic chemical element with the chemical symbol Ag and atomic number 47. A soft, white, lustrous transition metal, it has the highest electrical conductivity of any element and the highest thermal conductivity of any metal...

 containing 92.5% by mass of silver and 7.5% by mass of other metals, usually copper
Copper is a chemical element with the symbol Cu and atomic number 29. It is a ductile metal with very high thermal and electrical conductivity. Pure copper is soft and malleable; an exposed surface has a reddish-orange tarnish...

. The sterling silver standard
Silver standards
Silver standards refer to the standards of millesimal fineness for the silver alloy used in the manufacture or crafting of silver objects. This list is organized from highest to lowest millesimal fineness, or purity of the silver....

 has a minimum millesimal fineness
Millesimal fineness
Millesimal fineness is a system of denoting the purity of platinum, gold and silver alloys by parts per thousand of pure metal by mass in the alloy. For example, an alloy containing 75% gold is denoted as "750". Many European countries use decimal hallmark stamps Millesimal fineness is a system of...

 of 925.

Fine silver (99.9% pure) is generally too soft for producing functional objects; therefore, the silver is usually alloyed with copper to give it strength while preserving the ductility
In materials science, ductility is a solid material's ability to deform under tensile stress; this is often characterized by the material's ability to be stretched into a wire. Malleability, a similar property, is a material's ability to deform under compressive stress; this is often characterized...

 and beauty of the precious metal
Precious metal
A precious metal is a rare, naturally occurring metallic chemical element of high economic value.Chemically, the precious metals are less reactive than most elements, have high lustre, are softer or more ductile, and have higher melting points than other metals...

. Other metals can replace the copper, usually with the intent to improve various properties of the basic sterling alloy such as reducing casting porosity
Porosity or void fraction is a measure of the void spaces in a material, and is a fraction of the volume of voids over the total volume, between 0–1, or as a percentage between 0–100%...

, eliminating firescale
Firescale, also known as firestain, is a red or purple stain that appears on mixtures of silver and copper, such as sterling silver. At high temperatures, oxygen mixes with the copper to form cuprous oxide and then cupric oxide...

, and increasing resistance to tarnish
Tarnish is a thin layer of corrosion that forms over copper, brass, silver, aluminum, and other similar metals as their outermost layer undergoes a chemical reaction. Tarnish does not always result from the sole effects of oxygen in the air. For example, silver needs hydrogen sulfide to tarnish; it...

. These replacement metals include germanium
Germanium is a chemical element with the symbol Ge and atomic number 32. It is a lustrous, hard, grayish-white metalloid in the carbon group, chemically similar to its group neighbors tin and silicon. The isolated element is a semiconductor, with an appearance most similar to elemental silicon....

, zinc
Zinc , or spelter , is a metallic chemical element; it has the symbol Zn and atomic number 30. It is the first element in group 12 of the periodic table. Zinc is, in some respects, chemically similar to magnesium, because its ion is of similar size and its only common oxidation state is +2...

 and platinum
Platinum is a chemical element with the chemical symbol Pt and an atomic number of 78. Its name is derived from the Spanish term platina del Pinto, which is literally translated into "little silver of the Pinto River." It is a dense, malleable, ductile, precious, gray-white transition metal...

, as well as a variety of other additives, including silicon
Silicon is a chemical element with the symbol Si and atomic number 14. A tetravalent metalloid, it is less reactive than its chemical analog carbon, the nonmetal directly above it in the periodic table, but more reactive than germanium, the metalloid directly below it in the table...

 and boron
Boron is the chemical element with atomic number 5 and the chemical symbol B. Boron is a metalloid. Because boron is not produced by stellar nucleosynthesis, it is a low-abundance element in both the solar system and the Earth's crust. However, boron is concentrated on Earth by the...

. A number of alloys, such as Argentium sterling silver
Argentium sterling silver
Argentium Sterling silver is a modern sterling silver alloy which modifies the traditional alloy by replacing some of the copper with the metalloid germanium...

, have appeared in recent years, formulated to lessen firescale or to inhibit tarnish, and this has sparked heavy competition among the various manufacturers, who are rushing to make claims of having the best formulation. However, no one alloy has emerged to replace copper as the industry standard, and alloy development is a very active area.


The earliest attestation of the term is in Old French
Old French
Old French was the Romance dialect continuum spoken in territories that span roughly the northern half of modern France and parts of modern Belgium and Switzerland from the 9th century to the 14th century...

 form esterlin, in a charter of the abbey of Les Préaux
Les Préaux
Les Préaux is a commune in the Eure department and Haute-Normandie region of France.-Population:-References:*...

, dating to either 1085 or 1104. The English chronicler Orderic Vitalis (1075 - c. 1142) uses the Latin forms libræ sterilensium and libræ sterilensis monetæ. The word in origin refers to the newly introduced Norman silver penny.

The most plausible etymology is derivation from a late Old English steorling (with (or like) a "little star"), as some early Norman pennies were imprinted with a small star.

There are a number of obsolete hypotheses. One suggests a connection with starling
Starlings are small to medium-sized passerine birds in the family Sturnidae. The name "Sturnidae" comes from the Latin word for starling, sturnus. Many Asian species, particularly the larger ones, are called mynas, and many African species are known as glossy starlings because of their iridescent...

, and another a supposed connection with easterling, a term for natives of the Baltic or the Hanse towns of eastern Germany. This etymology is itself medieval, suggested by Walter de Pinchebek (ca. 1300) with the explanation that the coin was originally made by moneyers from that region (OED).


There is general agreement that the sterling alloy originated in continental Europe, and was being used for commerce as early as the 12th century in the area that is now northern Germany
Germany , officially the Federal Republic of Germany , is a federal parliamentary republic in Europe. The country consists of 16 states while the capital and largest city is Berlin. Germany covers an area of 357,021 km2 and has a largely temperate seasonal climate...


In England the composition of sterling silver was subject to official assay
Metallurgical assay
A metallurgical assay is a compositional analysis of an ore, metal, or alloy.Some assay methods are suitable for raw materials; others are more appropriate for finished goods. Raw precious metals are assayed by an assay office...

 at some date before 1158, during the reign of Henry II
Henry II of England
Henry II ruled as King of England , Count of Anjou, Count of Maine, Duke of Normandy, Duke of Aquitaine, Duke of Gascony, Count of Nantes, Lord of Ireland and, at various times, controlled parts of Wales, Scotland and western France. Henry, the great-grandson of William the Conqueror, was the...

, but its purity was probably regulated from centuries earlier, in Saxon
Anglo-Saxon is a term used by historians to designate the Germanic tribes who invaded and settled the south and east of Great Britain beginning in the early 5th century AD, and the period from their creation of the English nation to the Norman conquest. The Anglo-Saxon Era denotes the period of...

 times. A piece of sterling silver dating from Henry II's reign was used as a standard in the Trial of the Pyx
Trial of the Pyx
The Trial of the Pyx is the procedure in the United Kingdom for ensuring that newly minted coins conform to required standards. Trials have been held from the twelfth century to the present day, normally once per calendar year; the form of the ceremony has been essentially the same since 1282 AD...

 until it was deposited at the Royal Mint
Royal Mint
The Royal Mint is the body permitted to manufacture, or mint, coins in the United Kingdom. The Mint originated over 1,100 years ago, but since 2009 it operates as Royal Mint Ltd, a company which has an exclusive contract with HM Treasury to supply all coinage for the UK...

 in 1843. It bears the royal stamp ENRI. REX("King Henry") but this was added later, in the reign of Henry III
Henry III of England
Henry III was the son and successor of John as King of England, reigning for 56 years from 1216 until his death. His contemporaries knew him as Henry of Winchester. He was the first child king in England since the reign of Æthelred the Unready...

. The first legal definition of sterling silver appeared in 1275, when a statute of Edward I
Edward I of England
Edward I , also known as Edward Longshanks and the Hammer of the Scots, was King of England from 1272 to 1307. The first son of Henry III, Edward was involved early in the political intrigues of his father's reign, which included an outright rebellion by the English barons...

 specified that 12 ounces
Troy ounce
The troy ounce is a unit of imperial measure. In the present day it is most commonly used to gauge the weight of precious metals. One troy ounce is nowadays defined as exactly 0.0311034768 kg = 31.1034768 g. There are approximately 32.1507466 troy oz in 1 kg...

 of silver for coinage should contain 11 ounces 2¼ pennyweight
A pennyweight is a unit of mass that is equal to 24 grains, 1/20 of a troy ounce, 1/240 of a troy pound, approximately 0.054857 avoirdupois ounce and exactly 1.55517384 grams....

s of silver and 17¾ pennyweights of alloy.

From about 1840 to somewhere around 1940 in the United States
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

 and Europe
Europe is, by convention, one of the world's seven continents. Comprising the westernmost peninsula of Eurasia, Europe is generally 'divided' from Asia to its east by the watershed divides of the Ural and Caucasus Mountains, the Ural River, the Caspian and Black Seas, and the waterways connecting...

, sterling silver flatware became de rigueur when setting a proper table
Table setting
Table setting or place setting refers to the way to set a table with tableware—such as eating utensils and dishes for serving and eating. The arrangement for a single diner is called a place setting...

. In fact, there was a marked increase in the number of silver companies that emerged during that period.

The height of the silver craze was during the 50-year period from 1870 to 1920. Flatware lines during this period sometimes included up to 100 different types of pieces. In conjunction with this, the dinner went from three courses to sometimes ten or more. There was a soup course, a salad course, a fruit course, a cheese course, an antipasto course
Antipasto , means "before the meal" and is the traditional first course of a formal Italian meal. Traditional antipasto includes cured meats, olives, roasted garlic, peperoncini, mushrooms, anchovies, artichoke hearts, various cheeses...

, a fish course, the main course
Main course
A main dish is the featured or primary dish in a meal consisting of several courses. It usually follows the entrée course, and the salad course. In North American usage it may in fact be called the "entree"....

 and a pastry or dessert course.

Individual eating implements often included forks (dinner fork, place fork, salad fork, pastry fork
Pastry fork
A pastry fork, also known as a "pie fork", is a fork designed for eating pastries and other desserts while holding a plate. The fork has 3 or 4 tines...

, shrimp or cocktail fork), spoons (teaspoon
A teaspoon, an item of cutlery, is a small spoon, commonly part of a silverware place setting, suitable for stirring and sipping the contents of a cup of tea or coffee...

, coffee spoon, demitasse spoon
Demitasse spoon
A demitasse spoon is a diminutive spoon, smaller than a teaspoon.It is traditionally used for coffee drinks in specialty cups and for spooning cappuccino froth.It is also used as a baby spoon, and in some surgical procedures....

, bouillon spoon, gumbo soup spoon, iced tea spoon
Iced tea spoon
An iced tea spoon, also called a soda spoon, is a thin spoon with a very long handle. It is used primarily in the United States, for stirring sugar or other sweeteners into iced tea, which is traditionally served in a tall glass. This is why the spoon has a very long handle.It is also commonly used...

) and knives (dinner knife, place knife, butter spreader
Butter knife
In common usage, a butter knife may refer to any non-serrated table knife designed with a dull edge and rounded point; formal flatware patterns make a distinction between such a place knife and a butter knife...

, fruit knife, cheese knife
Cheese knife
A cheese knife is a type of kitchen knife specialized for the cutting of cheese. Different cheeses require different knives, according primarily to hardness; most often "cheese knife" refers to a knife designed for soft cheese. Soft cheeses require a sharp knife...

). This was especially true during the Victorian period, when etiquette dictated nothing should be touched with one's fingers.

Serving pieces were often elaborately decorated and pierced and embellished with ivory, and could include any or all of the following: carving knife and fork, salad knife and fork, cold meat fork, punch ladle, soup ladle, gravy ladle, casserole serving spoon, berry spoon, lasagna server, macaroni server, asparagus server, cucumber server, tomato server, olive spoon, cheese scoop, fish knife and fork, pastry server, petit four server, cake
Cake is a form of bread or bread-like food. In its modern forms, it is typically a sweet and enriched baked dessert. In its oldest forms, cakes were normally fried breads or cheesecakes, and normally had a disk shape...

 knife, bon bon spoon, tiny salt spoon, sugar sifter or caster and crumb remover with brush.

Flatware sets were often accompanied by tea services, hot water pots, chocolate pots, trays and salvers, goblets, demitasse cups and saucers, liqueur cups, bouillon cups, egg cups, sterling plates, napkin rings, water and wine pitchers and coasters, candelabra and even elaborate centerpieces.

In fact, the craze with sterling even extended to business (sterling paper clip
Paper Clip
"Paper Clip" is a 1995 episode of The X-Files television series. It was the second episode broadcast in the show's third season. Paper Clip concludes the story regarding the agents' possession of a digital tape containing government secrets on extraterrestrials.- Plot :Continuing from the previous...

s, mechanical pencil
Mechanical pencil
A mechanical pencil or a propelling pencil is a pencil with a replaceable and mechanically extendable solid pigment core called a lead . It is designed such that the lead can be extended as its point is worn away...

s, letter openers, calling card boxes, cigarette case
Cigarette case
A cigarette case or cigarette box is a sturdy, most commonly metal container to store small numbers of cigarettes safely from crushing. In modern times they are also made of plastic....

s), to the boudoir (sterling dresser trays, mirrors, hair and suit brushes, pill bottles, manicure sets, shoehorns, perfume bottles, powder bottles, hair clips) and even to children (cups, flatware, rattle
Rattle (percussion)
A rattle is a percussion instrument. It consists of a hollow body filled with small uniform solid objects, like sand or nuts. Rhythmical shaking of this instrument produces repetitive, rather dry timbre noises. In some kinds of music, a rattle assumes the role of the metronome, as an alternative to...

s, christening sets).

A number of factors converged to make sterling fall out of favor around the time of World War II
World War II
World War II, or the Second World War , was a global conflict lasting from 1939 to 1945, involving most of the world's nations—including all of the great powers—eventually forming two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis...

. The cost of labor rose (sterling pieces were all still mostly hand made, with only the basics being done by machine). Only the wealthy could afford the large number of servants required for fancy dining with ten courses. And changes in aesthetics resulted in people desiring simpler dinnerware that was easier to clean.


Over the years, some countries developed systems of hallmarking silver
Silver hallmarks
A sterling silver object that is to be sold commercially is, in most countries, stamped with one or more silver hallmarks indicating the purity of the silver, the mark of the manufacturer or silversmith, and other markings to indicate date of manufacture and additional information about the piece...

. The purpose of hallmark
A hallmark is an official mark or series of marks struck on items made of precious metals — platinum, gold, silver and in some nations, palladium...

 application is many fold:
  • To indicate the purity of the silver alloy used in the manufacture or hand-crafting of the piece.
  • To identify the silversmith or company that made the piece.
  • To note the date and/or location of the manufacture or tradesman.


In addition to the uses of sterling silver mentioned above, there are some little known uses of sterling:
  • Evidence of silver and/or silver-alloy surgical and medical instruments has been found in civilizations as early as Ur, Hellenistic-era Egypt and Rome, and their use continued until largely replaced in Western countries in the mid to late 20th century by cheaper, disposable plastic items. Its natural malleability is an obvious physical advantage, but it also exhibits medically-specific utility, including the fact that it is naturally aseptic, and, in respect of modern medical practices, it is resistant to antiseptics, heat sterilisation and body fluids.
  • Due to sterling silver having a special sound character, some brasswind instrument manufacturers use 92.5% sterling silver as the material for making their instruments, including the flute and saxophone. For example, some leading saxophone manufactuers such as Selmer
    The Selmer Company
    Henri Selmer Paris company is a French family-owned enterprise, manufacturer of musical instruments based in Paris, France in 1885. It is known for its high-quality woodwind and brass instruments, especially saxophones, clarinets and trumpets...

     and Yanagisawa
    Yanagisawa Wind Instruments
    Yanagisawa Wind Instruments is a Japanese woodwind company known for its range of professional grade saxophones. Along with Yamaha they are one of the leading manufacturers of saxophones in Japan....

     have crafted some of their saxophones from sterling silver, which they believe will make the instruments more resonant and colorful in timbre.

Tarnish and corrosion

As the purity of the silver decreases, the problem of corrosion
Corrosion is the disintegration of an engineered material into its constituent atoms due to chemical reactions with its surroundings. In the most common use of the word, this means electrochemical oxidation of metals in reaction with an oxidant such as oxygen...

 or tarnishing increases.

Chemically, silver is not very reactive—it does not react with oxygen
Oxygen is the element with atomic number 8 and represented by the symbol O. Its name derives from the Greek roots ὀξύς and -γενής , because at the time of naming, it was mistakenly thought that all acids required oxygen in their composition...

 or water at ordinary temperatures, so does not easily form a silver oxide. However, other metals in the alloy, usually copper, may react with oxygen in the air.

The black silver sulfide
Silver sulfide
Silver sulfide, Ag2S, is the sulfide of silver. This dense black solid constitutes the tarnish that forms over time on silverware and other silver objects. Silver sulfide is insoluble in all solvents, but is degraded by strong acids. Silver sulfide features a covalent bond, as it is made up of...

 (Ag2S) is among the most insoluble
Solubility is the property of a solid, liquid, or gaseous chemical substance called solute to dissolve in a solid, liquid, or gaseous solvent to form a homogeneous solution of the solute in the solvent. The solubility of a substance fundamentally depends on the used solvent as well as on...

 salts in aqueous solution
In chemistry, a solution is a homogeneous mixture composed of only one phase. In such a mixture, a solute is dissolved in another substance, known as a solvent. The solvent does the dissolving.- Types of solutions :...

, a property that is exploited for separating silver ion
An ion is an atom or molecule in which the total number of electrons is not equal to the total number of protons, giving it a net positive or negative electrical charge. The name was given by physicist Michael Faraday for the substances that allow a current to pass between electrodes in a...

s from other positive ions.

Sodium chloride (NaCl) or common table salt is known to corrode silver-copper alloy, typically seen in silver salt shakers where corrosion appears around the holes in the top.

Several products have been developed for the purpose of polishing silver that serve to remove sulfur
Sulfur or sulphur is the chemical element with atomic number 16. In the periodic table it is represented by the symbol S. It is an abundant, multivalent non-metal. Under normal conditions, sulfur atoms form cyclic octatomic molecules with chemical formula S8. Elemental sulfur is a bright yellow...

 from the metal without damaging or warping it. Because harsh polishing and buffing can permanently damage and devalue a piece of antique silver, valuable items are typically hand-polished to preserve the unique patina
Patina is a tarnish that forms on the surface of bronze and similar metals ; a sheen on wooden furniture produced by age, wear, and polishing; or any such acquired change of a surface through age and exposure...

s of older pieces. Techniques such as wheel polishing, which are typically performed by professional jewelers or silver repair companies, are reserved for extreme tarnish or corrosion.

External links

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